Queer Art: a milestone for gay rights?

May 18, 2017

I was pleased to see the Tate gallery marking 106 years of Queer British Art with a fascinating new exhibition spanning 1861 to 1967.

The dates are significant, as they take us from the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 to the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967 – a period that allows us to explore how artists expressed themselves at a time when established assumptions about gender and sexuality were being questioned and transformed.

The exhibition is gloriously expansive and diverse, showcasing paintings, drawings, personal photographs and film from artists such as John Singer Sargent, Dora Carrington, Duncan Grant and David Hockney.

I am fascinated by the exhibits, their message at times coded and veiled, at others candid and outspoken: Edward Burra’s sailors in Boston bars, a haughty self-portrait by Gluck, Man Ray’s 1934 photograph of Virginia Woolf. There is a selection of library books that Kenneth Halliwell and playwright Joe Orton borrowed from Islington library in the late 1950s and early 60s. They pasted strips of type on the texts to change their meaning, creating a new form of literary criticism. Noël Coward’s dressing-gown is also here, as is the calling card left by the Marquess of Queensbury for Oscar Wilde (with the words “for Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite”). [sic]

It is astonishing in today’s world to think back 50 years, when you could be thrown in prison just for whom you loved. Equally astonishing, however, to think that it took almost 50 years after homosexuality was decriminalised for gay couples to win the right to marry, in this country at least.

Elsewhere, the gay community is still fighting for equal rights. While many European countries have equivalent legislation, South Africa is the only African country where same-sex marriage is recognised.

Of course, equal marriage is perhaps a relatively smaller concern compared to the violence that gays suffer in some parts of the world. Only last month, reports from Chechnya spoke of dozens of homosexual men being hounded, detained and even killed. In Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and Brunei, homosexual acts are still punishable by death. According to statistics from May 2016, 23 countries in Asia still criminalise homosexual acts.

So while Queer British Art is seen as a celebration of tolerance, it also serves as a reminder that in many parts of the world, the struggle for acceptance is far from over.

It reminds me of the words of art historian and critic John Ruskin, who said: “Endurance is nobler than strength, and patience than beauty.”

The world has come a long way, especially in the past 10 years. However, in this increasingly divisive world, we sometimes seem to be at risk of reversing the progress made by the previous generation.

I am patient and hopeful, however, that equality and tolerance will win through in the end.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation